Wednesday, October 20
Philomel / Penguin 2010
Everyone's been raving about this book. It just got nominated from a National Book Award. It's been on the periphery of my radar so I figured it was time to pick it up. Twenty-five pages later it was time to put it down.
There is no worse feeling than to not like a popular book and feel, somehow, like you're defective for thinking it. Worse if you like to think of yourself as a writer, because when you go against the grain (and then do so publicly in a place like a blog) you're almost certain to alter people's opinions of you. Not necessarily for the better.
Is it wrong to feel like the first-person child narrator with Aspergers is a tired trend? Is it wrong to even think of it as a trend? Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The London Eye mystery. Emma Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree. Three or four other titles I've read in the last year or so whose titles I cannot remember.
So what's my problem anyway? Do I not want kids to read about characters who are different then themselves, to better learn and understand about differently-abled kids and to show some respect and tolerance? Isn't calling these stories "tired" akin to saying the same thing about vampires?
Here's the deal: when I'm reading, and there is something about the narrative that continually pulls me away from the story being told, I no longer enjoy the reading experience. Erskine's narrator is ten year old Caitlin. As a child with Aspergers I am willing to accept that she finds a certain disconnect with the world, with an inability to read facial expression or to know how to respond to people without taking the world literally. What I have a hard time with is a ten year old with Aspergers being all these things and yet more articulate than any ten year old I've ever met, including highly gifted ones. I realize this conceit is necessary to give the reader a sense of what is going on while at the same time trying to put them inside the head of main character, but on every page I kept finding myself unable to suspend the disbelief.
I'd also like to see more stories told from the perspective of the friend of a child with Aspergers (or ADHD for that matter) who don't doesn't really understand what makes their friend behave the way they do but is fine with them anyway. Sort of like the idea of having a gay character in a story where the story isn't about the character being gay, it's just who they are. In the long run isn't that what we want from the readers, from children, to be able to recognize these differences and not have them matter in a way that causes them to be viewed as "other" than themselves?
I am not closed to the idea of revisiting this book down the road if someone can truly convince me that I can't just read the last thirty pages of this book and feel like I missed something in the middle that I haven't seen before.
Monday, October 18
Atheneum / Simon & Schuster 2010
A tale of gold prospecting and romance and karmic debts paid off over several generations with just a kiss of magical realism in this graphic novel.
In the settled Canadian province of Nova Scotia the Fraser's of French Hill have settled into a life of barely sustainable farm life when the mysterious stranger Asa Curry comes calling. He's discovered gold on the Fraser property and looks to help mine it with a share of the proceeds. In the Fraser household daughter Josey has become smitten with Asa and over time he becomes the forbidden fruit she pledges herself to. But there's something dark about Asa that causes Josey's mother to worry that he is a harbinger of death.
One hundred and fifty years later the Fraser house has remained in the family but has burned down, causing the current Frasers, Tara and her mother, to become displaced. While her mother works to find a new job and get settled in a new town, Tara returns to attend high school and, with the aid of a mercury-filled pendant that's been in the family for generations, solve a mystery that connects Tara's story with Josey's. The phoenix out of the ashes of the house fire, as it were, allows Tara and her mother the chance at a new life that was denied their ancestors.
Jumping back and forth between stories it becomes clear that Tara and Josey's stories will cross paths, but with Larson that doesn't mean it is easy to guess. The tale of the stranger with seemingly magical (and dark) powers is not unusual for the 18th and 19th centuries, and here those elements are handled as matter-of-fact as we treat the "magic" that allows us to use cell phones today. This is Larson territory, where the magic is real, and she leaves much for the reader to discover and define for themselves. Crows with faces of people, "spells" that can see the future, gold-seeking pendants and yellow snake guides are blended with they typical stories of teens encountering first loves and exploring territories as mysterious to them as anything else in this world.
Larson's pacing and scene-setting is measured and exacting – nothing moves too fast or too slow – poetically cinematic in flow. Having the panels set in the past against black backgrounds, while the present day sections are set against traditional white space, almost seems superfluous because we can the different ages by costume, but in a black and white comic it has the effect of turning the past almost sepia. The visual darkness takes advantage of our knowledge of the pasts limitations and shrouds them in the darkness of a time before we became "illuminated" and magic was replaced by science and logic. Larson's magic is elemental – mercury, gold, fire – with powers we can barely contain. How is that not like love?
Wednesday, October 13
by G. Neri
illustrated by Randy DuBurke
Lee and Low Books 2010
The tragic account of an act of inner city violence that briefly gripped the nation and put a young face to seriousness of the problem.
In the spring of 1994 there was a shooting in the Roseland area of Chicago, on the city's southside. Robert "Yummy" Sandifer, age 11, out to make a name for himself in a local gang called the Black Desciples attempted to shoot rival gang memebers and killed 14 year old Shavon Dean by accident. With the aid of the Desciples Yummy hid from police for three days but was then found shot dead by members of the gang he was trying to impress.
Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty tells the story of those last days from the perspective of a fictional narrator named Roger who, under better circumstances, might have been Yummy's friend. In unraveling the story after the fact, Roger attempts to see Yummy's life from all perspectives, to try and understand how someone as young as him could end up both a killer and killed at such a young age.
Yummy is a true tragic character. Neglected and beaten from an early age, parents in and out of jail, lost through the cracks in social services, Yummy is a poster child for what was (and still is) wrong with the inner cities. He starts out shoplifting and holding up people at ATMs with a toy gun, then moves to stealing cars for members of the local gang. These attempts to get attention and find himself a stable and safe family are almost textbook examples of how kids end up in gangs but what was so shocking to many was how young Yummy was as he ascended into gang life. The gangs use younger kids – nicknamed shortys – to do their dirty work because they can't be tried as adults. And there's always an endless supply of kids looking to impress the gang leaders and become "made." The mortality rate in the socioeconomically depressed areas makes a gang member over the age of 19 is a senior citizen. Yummy barely made it half way there.
The ugliest side of this story was that when Yummy was on the run there were people who knew where he was and didn't really act on his behalf. The gang only hid Yummy initially because they wanted to keep the heat of their activities. When Yummy, acting as a scared 11 year old naturally would, calls his grandma to pick him up he gets swept up by local people who want to get rid of him as quickly as possible for fear of attention being drawn on them. It isn't clear why the women who are keeping him "safe" until his grandma can fetch him are quick to let him go with a pair of Desciples who clearly out to clean up the mess Yummy made by driving him to a secluded location where he would later be found dead. The implication is that the moment Yummy pulled the trigger on the gun he was officially on his own and no one would be able to save him – a chilling thought the reader gets to chew on long after they've closed the book.
Neri isn't interested in taking sides here or pointing the figure but instead lets the various sides of the story speak for themselves, trusting the reader will understand that sometimes there is no right answer, that regardless of circumstances there is always a choice and that you need to be careful about the choices you make.
There's a grittiness to the black and white illustration in this graphic novel that both fit its dark mood and, for me at least, push the issue back into history. And if I had any criticism it's that the story does feel pushed back in a way that might make it easier to dismiss. Given that teen readers will barely have been born when all this originally took place it might be seen more as an historical graphic novel and not a reflection of modern times. I think it might have been nice for there to be some back matter or a coda that tied these events to the present and perhaps made the readers feel more inclined to want to change the way things are.
This review is cross-posted over at Guys Lit Wire today. Guys Lit Wire, where reviews of books of interest to teen boys are posted fresh each weekday.
Friday, October 8
Graphix / Scholastic 2010
A collection of occasionally-connected comic strips about a boy and his dog and a very strange, strangely reminiscent world...
As a boy named Copper walks home with his dog he imagines his backpack is a jetpack that takes him zooming around the skies. Instantly he's surrounded by other jetpack fliers... who all are dropping bombs on a city below. The fantasy ruined the boy returned to reality and sadly walks away. This is the first adventure and typical of many of the early single-page comic strips in this collection. At first the adventures all end with Copper coming back to reality from a dream, often with clues that influenced his dreams surrounding his room. Soon, recurring characters and situations surface. Who is the girl trapped in a bubble in his dreams, and does she have any connection with the girl in reality who keeps lobbing drawings and mash notes at him from afar? Soon the waking aspect of the stories disappear – is it all a dream, or an alternate universe? Are they trapped on an island? Where can I find a melon bread stand with doughy goodness made with love?
It has to be said: the earlier strips in this collection borrow very strongly from Windsor McKay's Little Nemo in Slumberland comic strip from a hundred yeas ago. Not bad source material to borrow from, but I was worried in the beginning that the stories would be fancy and fantasy and derivative. And there are other cartoon references as well, including an early tip to Charles Schulz and Charlie Brown's love of a little read-haired girl. Or the fact that it's a boy and his – is it a beagle? –who waxes philosophically and may not be as intrepid a traveler as he seems.
After a while the one-page stories grow to several pages, some stories connect in a semi-linear fashion, all of it takes on a certain veneer of other-ness. Kibuishi may be familiar to those who have are following his Amulet series, or the Flight collections he edits annually. The style here is featherweight compared to his other work, and the worst on could say is that it's a nice collection. Of comic strips, mind you, not a graphic novel; there's no through-line or coherent cohesive structure here that grants it novel status. Perhaps down the road Kibuishi will take Copper out for a lengthier adventure and perhaps answer some of the many question left unanswered here.
Wednesday, October 6
by K. A. Holt
illustrated by Gahan Wilson
Neal Porter / Roaring Brook Press 2010
zombied middle school
living and undead
haiku and romance
bullies and librarians
imperfect but fun
Loeb's a zombie
smart, but he hides it from friends
has brains, eats them, too
suggests Loeb enters contest
reading his haiku
smitten, he agrees
meanwhile, fends off bullies
both living and dead
enter the girl
Siobhan, a gothic Lifer
snake oil peddler
she defends Loeb
seems interested in him
but Loeb has doubts
a living girl
and an undead zombie boy
is love possible?
Loeb wins contest
has a heart-to-undead-heart
and gets the girl
Holt combines haiku
zombies and middle school life
(with racial tensions)
a humorous spin
of traditional school yarns
though not true haiku
much like this review's format
sometimes feels forced
but is zips along
short chapters, ghoulish pictures
what's not to like here?
Monday, October 4
The memoir of the author's teen years told in graphic novel format focusing on her orthodontic adventures following a severe injury.
Everyone has a story tell about themselves, and in theory everyone has a reason for telling that story. We do this all the time in conversation when someone mentions a topic and our memories spark with a story, account, or anecdote that relates to the topic in question. In theory the story of ourselves we tell is also appropriate to the situation – when told, for example, about an elderly person's death after a fall we don't automatically launch into a humorous story about that one time we fell while carrying a gallon of mustard and ended up on the floor covered in it.
The memoir is very much like the stories we tell casually. Unlike a biography which is an attempt to get a story factually straight, or to understand better the person behind the story, the memoir is an elective tale told by the author toward a specific goal or to make a particular point. And as with any narrative it is presumed that the point of the memoir is the natural accumulation of the episodes depicted, a sort of realization that comes from the conflicts presented.
So we begin smiles with a sixth grade Raina who one day falls and lands on her face, accidentally knocking out her front two teeth. For the next six years (and 200+ pages) Raina goes through an elaborate series of dental surgeries, adjustments, and reconstructions that would naturally traumatize any teen. Her circumstances are unique in that she doesn't just need braces, she'll need to have her teeth shifted to fill the gaps, fix an overbite, and then correct for misalignment.
Along the way we learn about Raina's love of video games, her crushes on boys, her artistic temperament. As she gets older and moves on to high school she feels herself pull away from her friends, or rather, her friends are unchanged and she's moved on. She finds a new crowd to hang with and in the end is happy with the person she's become.
Initially Raina's friends make fun of her in various situations, mocking her for her "vampire teeth" and and for liking a younger boy, until finally Raina calls them out and walks away for disrespecting her. This lesson in self-esteem would seem to be the main message of Smile, and not entirely inconsistent with Raina's situation, but I found myself flipping to the last page saying "And?"
As a document in the orthodontic experience Telgemeier's book could serve as an introduction to children who are wondering what they are in for (and aren't easily scared) but these experiences don't fully integrate into the rest of the story. If the dental sections were removed the story of Raina and her life would remain coherent but the story would reveal itself to be rather weak. In that sense Smile is like a special effects movie with a weak story constructed to justify what's on the screen. It isn't necessarily bad, nor is it badly rendered, but the goal of this memoir is thin at best and takes a backseat to a play-by-play on what to expect when your teeth need correcting. I never really felt Raina's two worlds connected, and her anxieties are almost indistinguishable from the teen angst of kids who don't have such trauma, that I never really understood what the point of the story was throughout.
A more even balance between both stories, with emphasis on how the surgeries played into the character's esteem, could have made this a winner.
Friday, October 1
Ghostwritten by Bobbi Katz
Illustrated by Adam McCauley
A picture book collection of monster poems in the guise of a memoir of a monster hunter. What's not to like?
Every couple of years is seems we get a collection of ghoulish rhymes and monster-themed picture books, with one that stands out. Off the top of my head the only recent one I can think of is Adam Rex's Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich, full of truly odd takes on classic movie monsters. Bobbi Katz's The Mosterologist is this year's model.
There's little new one can say about classic monsters that hasn't been covered before except to couch them in unusual settings or framed within a larger context. Here, Katz has "ghostwritten" a memoir of a monster hunter who records his exploits and descriptions in verse. All the usual suspects are here: Medusa, Frankenstein's monster, Werewolves, a Kraken, but there are some lesser-knowns and a few newly minted monsters in the bunch as well. Grendel and the Golem don't usually find as much coverage as they do here, "Bluebeard's Personal Ad" will probably fly over the heads of the kids, and the "International Zombie Survey" is a nice take on the current fascination with the living dead (it's a census form). Making their debut are "The Verbivore" which has eaten the verbs out of a well-known macabre poem ("The Worms Crawl In"), "The Suds-Surfing Sock-Eater," and "The Compu-Monster," which are probably the two weakest poems in the bunch.
For the original monsters, perhaps the problem is that the poems have to explain what these monsters are where the other poems play of some passing familiarity of the subject. Trolls, Count Dracula, and a cyclops show up in other stories and so don't require an explanation of what they do and why they're monsters. Also, I have a hard time thinking of a sock eater or a verb eater as being as scary as Grendel's recipe for Danish Pastry (yes, using fresh Danes).
This is one handsome book, by the way. The cover is embossed and designed to look like a quasi-old leather-bound book, the endpapers are facsimiles of postage stamps featuring various monsters, and the pages are collections of paper ephemera from the Monsterologist's collection with the poems laid out on them. McCauly's art is alternately loose for illustrations but at the same time the "artifacts" are well conceived and look plausible. It's a nice mix and visually interesting without looking too cluttered or chaotic.
So, yeah, I liked it.